Horizon inquiry hearing sheds light on subpostmaster federation’s role in hushing up IT problems

A National Federation for Subpostmasters official had huge unexplained loss written off by Post Office despite many in the same position being convicted for crimes they didn't commit

The Post Office was pressured into writing off an unexplained shortfall of £68,000 at the branch of a senior National Federation for Subpostmasters (NFSP) representative, despite hundreds of subpostmasters being prosecuted when they could not explain losses.

An exchange during a focus group as part of the public inquiry into the Post Office IT scandal shed light on the NFSP’s failure to support its members when faced with accounting shortages they could not explain. 

Susan Edgar, a non-executive director at the NFSP since 2017, told the inquiry that she had a £68,000 unexplained shortfall in 2017 at her branch in north-east England, which was written off by the Post Office in 2020 following pressure from the NFSP. This occurred during the period leading up to the High Court litigation against the Post Office, through which subpostmasters past and present in the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance (JFSA) sought to prove that unexplained losses they had been blamed and punished for were caused by the Horizon computer system used for branch accounting.

“It took the NFSP pushing and pushing the Post Office to write this money off because I hadn’t had it,” Edgar told the inquiry. One of the NFSP officials involved in pressuring the Post Office to write off the unexplained loss, which Edgar suspected was caused by computer errors, was Calum Greenhow.

But in December 2019, after subpostmasters were proved right regarding the problems with Horizon, Greenhow, by now the CEO at the NFSP, claimed the organisation was unaware of problems with Horizon. In a letter to members, he said the NFSP had been misled by the Post Office over Horizon reliability.

“NFSP members and regional officials own and operate post offices. Many of us have used Horizon since its inception. The NFSP is therefore extremely disappointed by the Post Office’s behaviour in light of the verdict that the Horizon system was not fit for purpose until very recently,” he wrote.

“By implication of this verdict, the Post Office has misled the NFSP for years about the reliability of the Horizon system,” he said.

Alan Bates, founder of the JFSA, said: “The NFSP’s position was abundantly clear – they were fully supportive of the Post Office and its actions.”

•  See timeline of Computer Weekly articles on the scandal below  •

In 2015, in a letter to NFSP members following a Panorama documentary on BBC1 reporting issues with the Horizon system, then general secretary George Thomson wrote: “…the NFSP has not received calls from subpostmasters querying Horizon and alleging systemic failings. If there were a widespread problem, our subpostmasters would have made us aware of it. As a result, we have no choice but to conclude that Horizon is a fundamentally sound and safe system.”

In the first trial in the group action, which began in November 2018, the NFSP was criticised for its closeness to the Post Office. In his judgment for that trial, judge Peter Fraser said: “It is obvious, in my judgment, that the NFSP is not remotely independent of the Post Office, nor does it appear to put its members’ interests above its own separate commercial interests.”

After the Post Office agreed to write off the alleged loss at Edgar’s branch in 2020, she said she wanted this in writing so they couldn’t come back for the money. The Horizon IT inquiry chair, Wyn Williams, asked Edgar to send him any documentation relating to the Post Office’s agreement to wrote off the loss, which she agreed to.

At the time the unexplained loss was discovered, Edgar said her husband feared she could go to prison. “He actually asked me, ‘Will you go to prison for this?’. I said, ‘No, because I haven’t done it’, but then you find out that people have been to prison for things they haven’t done.”

Like thousands of current and former subpostmasters, Edgar experienced losses she could not explain. Thousands have paid the Post Office money to cover the shortfalls over the years and 736 were convicted for financial crimes as a result. The Post Office relied on evidence from the error-prone Horizon system to prosecute.

The NFSP did not reveal its knowledge of unexplained shortfalls, such as in Edgar’s case, even though it was aware of subpostmasters having problems.

It defended the Post Office’s stance for years, despite subpostmasters alleging that computer errors were causing unexplained losses and Computer Weekly’s 2009 investigation revealing the stories of seven affected subpostmasters.

During the court battle, the NFSP “sat on the fence”, according to the JFSA’s Bates. “They had no interest at all and never once contacted us about it,” he said.

Timeline of the Post Office Horizon articles since Computer Weekly first reported on it in 2009

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